Through many Dangers, Toils, and Snares (2 Cor. 11:26-27)
In the aftermath of 9/11 and with the ever-increasing price of gasoline, traveling has become something of a hassle. Increased air fares, long security lines that often move at a snail's pace, overcrowded flights, delayed flights, canceled flights, well, you get the picture. I must confess that on a couple of occasions I've lost my patience at such inconveniences, although I've tried not to direct my displeasure toward ticket agents and flight attendants who have no control over the variety of factors that create the problem.
During these past few years, ministry has taken me throughout the United States and on multiple trips overseas. But I have to confess, I've always felt safe, even pampered. Because of the frequency of my journeys I've attained elite status with American Airlines and routinely am upgraded to first class. Wherever I go my hosts have been gracious and occasionally lavish in providing for my needs. I've had good drivers (for the most part) and adequate accommodations.
The closest I've come to being in danger was from a nervous kangaroo named "Kim" in Australia, to whom we came a bit too close in our efforts to take a photograph. Actually, "Kim" was no threat, but it makes for a good story. In other words, I struggle to think of a single instance when my life was in jeopardy. Needless to say, it makes it difficult for me to identify with Paul's experience as he describes it in the following text:
"on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure" (2 Cor. 11:26-27).
The "frequent journeys" that occupied Paul's life exposed him to countless dangers. Traveling in those days, whether by land or sea, was a hazardous business. Here he mentions eight specific threats that became standard fare for him and his companions.
Recent flooding in certain regions of the U.S. at least help me better appreciate Paul's reference to "danger from rivers" (v. 26). I've watched, as I'm sure you have, the surging waters of various rivers in our country as they swept away homes and cars and, sadly, human victims. Let's not forget that in the first century bridges were uncommon and therefore every effort to ford a river posed a significant threat.
The second item in Paul's list is "danger from robbers" (v. 26) a reference not to the unseen pickpocket or the corporate embezzler but to the brigands, bandits, and pirates whose strong-armed tactics posed a constant threat to unsuspecting travelers. When one thinks of the many journeys where Paul was transporting significant amounts of money to aid churches in need, the "danger" becomes ever more real.
Paul's mention of "danger from my own people" (v. 26) is an obvious reference to the attacks he endured from fellow Jews. While in Damascus, "the Jews plotted to kill him" (Acts 9:23), a scene that was repeated on several occasions (see Acts 9:29; 13:45; 14:19; 15:26; 17:5; 18:12). Such opposition was not restricted to the Jews, as there was also "danger from Gentiles" (v. 26). One thinks immediately of the scourging Paul and Silas endured while in Philippi (Acts 16:16-24) and the riot in Ephesus that forced him to flee the city (Acts 19:23-20:1). There was even one occasion when "the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds" against Paul and his co-workers (Acts 14:2-5). Opposition came at him from every direction.
If his reference to Jews and Gentiles encompasses all people, the next three items, "danger" in the city, in the wilderness, and at sea (v. 26), cover every geographical region. Paul was never safe! Whether in populous cities or in uninhabited and lonely deserts, his life was ever on the line. The danger he faced "at sea" would include any form of injury or loss other than the "shipwrecks" (v. 25) noted earlier.
Standing alone at the end of these eight is "danger from false brothers" (v. 26), "the most hurtful and insidious peril of all. External dangers that threatened his own life were one thing; treacherous opposition that undermined his work was quite another thing. He could cope with life-threatening hazards from without more easily than with work-undermining perils from within" (Harris, 808).
Some folk today are hesitant to draw clear boundaries that define who is "in" and who is "out" of the Christian faith. They shy away from words such as "orthodoxy" and "heresy", fearful that such designations will prove offensive and divisive. Paul didn't share their concern! He has already mentioned "false apostles" (v. 13) who "disguise themselves as servants of righteousness" but are in fact servants of Satan. Here he again calls them "false brothers," people who claim to be Christians and use all the right vocabulary and feign a passion for Christ, who nonetheless are unregenerate impostors. I'm not citing Paul's language to encourage a critical and harshly judgmental spirit, but neither should we be so naïve as to think that everyone who claims to be a believer necessarily is.
These eight dangers are now followed by six hardships (v. 27). If it seems as if it never stops, that's because it never stopped. Paul's life was in constant danger. The deprivations were always present. The suffering was unrelenting.
The words "toil and hardship" (v. 27) may be something of a heading or general topic statement that is unpacked in the remaining items. But even then they point to something quite real and demanding in Paul's life, as the focus is on both the labor expended and the utter exhaustion that results. As we've noted before, he likely has in mind his working long hours to support himself and thus not be a burden to the Corinthians together with the fulfillment of his evangelistic and pastoral responsibilities.
It is instructive that Paul can speak so openly of the demands and rigors and hardships of ministry, yet without the slightest hint of burnout. The latter is a word about which we hear much today and many (most?) in ministry say that they reach that stage on multiple occasions over the years. What kept Paul going? How did he willingly embrace such a life without experiencing either a nervous breakdown or the loss of energy and motivation and joy? This is something I've touched on before in this series of meditations, so I suggest you simply go back and read what I wrote on 2 Corinthians 1:8-11; 4:16-18; and 6:3-10.
The many "sleepless nights" (v. 27) were no doubt voluntary as Paul interceded for his disciples and labored long hours. The "pressures of too much work and too many responsibilities" (Carson, 122) combined to deprive the apostle of much needed rest.
The "hunger and thirst" (v. 27) noted here probably came as the result of too little money and too much traveling. As Harris points out, "given the hundreds of miles that Paul traveled on foot, often across uninhabited terrain, it is not surprising to learn of the unavailability of food and water at least on some occasions, if not frequently. Also, his unwillingness to accept payment for spiritual ‘services rendered' could have sometimes led to ‘hunger and thirst' when his own resources dried up" (809).
Since the word "hunger" most likely describes going without food involuntarily, it is unlikely that Paul would repeat himself in the phrase "often without food" (v. 27). Therefore, there is good reason to conclude that by this latter statement he means voluntary "fasting", the cause of which may have been his commitment to intercessory prayer or even his foregoing of meals so as not to interrupt ministry opportunities.
Paul has already mentioned his many imprisonments for the sake of the gospel and it is likely that the "cold and exposure" (v. 27) here came in consequence of extended periods in barren jail cells.
For all this, says Carson, Paul "suffered doubly: the privations themselves, and then the condescending scorn of immature triumphalists who married pagan greed with over-realized eschatology to argue that financial prosperity was the reward of the just and the right of sons of God, conveniently forgetting the cross" (122).
So how are we to respond to this? Did Paul write it to elicit our pity or compassion? That's unlikely. Perhaps the appropriate response is gratitude that we don't have to live this way. No. We must remember that his intent in this paragraph is to counter the false teachers in Corinth who insisted that the proper credentials for the apostolic office consisted precisely in the absence of such suffering. The truly-anointed-man-of-God (which each of them, no doubt, considered himself to be) has a right to live above these deprivations and ought to be afforded all the comforts and conveniences of life. Anything less is indicative, so they said, of the inauthenticity of one's alleged call into ministry.
No one is being told to seek out this kind of suffering, but neither should we be surprised by it (1 Peter 4:12). But why would God orchestrate the lives of his servants so that they regularly encounter such hardships? Could it be, as we've so often seen before, that it's so we might learn not to "rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead" (2 Cor. 1:9)? Could it be "to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7)? Could it be "so that the life of Jesus may . . . be manifested in our bodies" (2 Cor. 4:10)? Could it be so that we might learn of the sufficiency of divine grace (2 Cor. 12:9)? Could it be "so that the power of Christ may rest upon" us and his strength be made known through our weakness (2 Cor. 12:10)? Yes, I think it could be.